Is Your Tech Integration Mostly a Garnish?

My MiddleWeb article from 5/17/15

During my college years, I worked as a server at several restaurants to pay my rent. At the swankiest of these, I recall the chef once telling his sous chefs to take their time plating neatly and to remember the garnish. He was fond of saying, “Do you know the difference between a ten-dollar dinner and a fifteen? Parsley.”

In the current educational climate, where any lesson that utilizes technology is considered superior, I can’t help but notice that a lot of what is being done is just adding parsley.

chef hat parsley 330Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way anti-technology. I am as hooked on my devices and what they can do as the next user. What I am is anti-bad pedagogy. One may be able to get away with outdated teaching practices using a tech-free lesson, but any flaws or faulty methodology become enhanced when technology enters the picture. No amount of parsley can compensate for a tasteless sauce.

The limits of “cool”

Exposed to decades of modern education research, teachers are well aware of best practices. We know that modern classrooms should incorporate 21st century skills, be student-centered and brain-based, strive to reach all learners, and provide authentic learning opportunities. My fear stems from what I have observed happening in the last several years.

Whereas during the NCLB years instruction was driven by what was on the state test (much of it rote learning), now curriculum is influenced heavily by what app we want to use just because it’s “cool.” The problem with this thinking is that cool fades—learning sticks. No one ever fondly recalls the delicious taste of the garnish.

computer tablet etc with app cloud 310All too often, I see teachers get excited about a new, fun app or device and immediately start to think about how they can incorporate it into their classroom.

They are more concerned with the trimmings than the entrée. Teachers need to determine what is to be taught before they decide what technology to use. The task at hand should influence the choice of technology and not vice-versa.

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating, that technology, whether in the form of a device or an application, is but a tool in our teaching toolbox. It needs to be an integral and vital part of the lesson, and must truly improve the instruction.

You want students to be able to answer the question, “What are you learning?” and not, “What are you playing with?”

New fangled drill-and-kill

Another issue is that a great deal of the incorporation of technology occurs at the most superficial level and only serves to replace current practice rather than improve upon it. Teachers should be focusing on what students can do with the addition of technology that they could not do without it before. Too many apps are just animated drill-and-kill exercises.

While some rote memorization is necessary in school, especially as one is developing the foundation for more advanced skills, if the only thing you do is replace one monotonous practice with another, you are not getting much bang for your technology buck. Research shows that focusing solely on rote tasks does not promote understanding or long-term retention of information. A digital worksheet is still just a worksheet.

hands swiping talblets or phonesI have also seen brilliant uses of flipped classrooms, but many times flipping classrooms is nothing more than putting some digital garnish on an ineffective lecture or confusing homework and sending it out the door.

“Sit and get” at home is not better than “sit and get” in class. We know that active rather than passive learning is a worthy goal. It is imperative to keep in mind that teaching should be brain based, not screen based. We know that too much screen time can lead to isolation, when what we should be encouraging is collaboration and higher-order thinking. Screens should only be an addition to our lessons if they are truly enhancing students’ learning.

Why tech motivation is extrinsic

Good middle school teachers strive to keep their students engaged and productive. They want to make the best use of their precious few minutes of time with the kids. However, using technology for the sole purpose of increasing engagement is a very short-sighted goal. Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink have devoted considerable effort to sharing the science of what motivates us. If we’ve paid attention, we know that by focusing only on engagement without purpose, we will never achieve true mastery of content.

Being engaged with the fun aspect of technology is a form of extrinsic motivation, and outside rewards do not lead to internal desire to learn material. Educators must not trade a true wish to make meaning of information for a short-term distraction to keep students occupied.

cameras etc 300 1Years ago, education was primarily dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge, but needs have shifted and today’s students must be more focused on the application of knowledge. They must go beyond what they can memorize and replicate.

As the saying goes, we are preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, and so we need to prioritize the 21st century skills of creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.

Our classrooms need to be student-centered and incorporate authentic learning tasks. We don’t need to make the same old entrée look better; we need to reinvent it or prepare it in a completely new and improved way.

1:1 equals student to teacher

Students need to reflect on what they are learning, be able to demonstrate it in myriad ways, and share what they have learned with others. All of this will never happen by just swiping a screen.

Critical thinking requires significant mental effort, but this is the only way we can make meaning of the tremendous amount of information available at our fingertips. Students must have a sincere motivation to master the material, and that begins with relationships to the teacher and purposeful action, not just deciding which app they get to play at school today.

large parsley 320Every generation believes they will discover that one revolutionary tool to change education as we know it. But if the use of these tools is not supported by sound pedagogy, then we will never achieve the desired result: students becoming self-directed, lifelong learners.

I’m not saying don’t use technology. Please use it! But incorporate it mindfully and purposefully in order to reap all the potential benefits. Try to make sure your dinner is truly worth $15 and not just the same old $10 dish with a pretty, yet unmemorable, throwaway.

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Low-Tech Learning as a Novel Concept

Today’s students have never known a time when computers didn’t exist. What’s more, they have the ability to carry a ridiculously powerful computer in their jeans pocket. Funny enough, even while having an electronic appendage with instant access to the world, I am noticing more and more that students appreciate being exposed to low-tech experiences.

I introduced the concept of Genius Hour (which I call Passion Projects) to my sixth grade students last month. They were given the option to learn a skill, create something new, or find a way to help others. I was quite surprised that, when given completely free reign, less than 15% of my students chose anything that involved technology. Instead, they wanted to learn how to do handicrafts such as knitting, cooking, cake decorating, and sewing. Also popular were model building, designing, and creative writing. Over a quarter of them are designing fundraisers to help charities close to their hearts. I did not expect that they would eschew technology. When I thought about this a little more, I realized it is because technology isn’t new for them. It is completely integrated into their daily lives so when given the task of choosing something new to learn, they opted to stray from their beloved technology.

Then it happened again. The middle school where I teach has an advisory period and a couple of days a month, this time is devoted to teacher-led clubs from which the students may choose. As each of the teachers introduced his or her club, the ear-splitting cheers were for clubs such as board games, knitting, eco-art, brainteasers, and the like. Although there were several clubs involving technology that will no doubt be equally as popular, I was again struck that students were also excited to learn hands-on skills or participate is low or no-tech activities.

The following week, at an assembly on the history of our school, the presenter showed pictures of girls in home economics classes cooking and sewing. This led to a classroom discussion about the “olden days” when students were required to take either home economic or shop classes. As I described these classes to students (because I took them), they were full of questions as to why we don’t still offer this kind of education because it sounded so “cool.” They were clamoring for the opportunity to cook and sew. Who knew this old-fashioned class would sound so interested to today’s students?

As a PD junkie, I come across dozens of articles each month lauding the use of technology in the classroom and detailing the myriad ways that technology can replace the old-fashioned classroom assignments. Don’t get me wrong—I am in no way anti-technology. I am as addicted to my devices as the next girl. However, I don’t find that students are nearly as engaged in most educational uses of technology as adults would hope. I’ve even heard students complain about too much screen time in school. Perhaps this is because some of the crafty, not necessarily pedagogically sound, projects that teachers are enamored of have merely been replaced by digital versions of equally dubious merit.

I think that perhaps one of the reasons so many teachers of all ages have jumped on the digital bandwagon is that we feel it is something that defines us as current or means we are teaching 21st Century Skills. It could also be that the use of technology in school is exciting for the teachers themselves because many weren’t exposed to much when they were in school. I know that I am often excited when I see the classroom possibilities of a new app or program. My point is not that technology doesn’t belong in the classroom, it does. It is that we may be overestimating the amount of engagement bang for our buck that tech provides. Not everything in our classrooms needs to be digitized and our students will appreciate the chance to experience the excitement of analog learning in a digital world. Excuse me while I go read my book (on paper, of course.)